Semantic Minefields

21 05 2010

This is the title given to Clark Hoyt’s op-ed column in the May 16, 2010 N Y Times Week in Review section (p.10) (see  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16pubed.html ) and I can do no better. He makes two points, both of them timely and important.

First, he explores the fracas surrounding the names or words chosen to refer to events, wherein dissension or controversy resides. He begins thus:

If the Obama administration takes out a radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen, would it be a “targeted killing” or an “assassination?” Was the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina a “natural” disaster” or a “man-made” one? Should new construction authorized by Israel in East Jerusalem be called Jewish “housing” or “settlements”?

They certainly have their work cut out for them, they who choose the words to represent events in the media. And arguably, as information dissemination increases its clout through constantly updated electronic media, such representations increasingly heighten their stake in the public perception war.

For instance, I’ve long  decried the term suicide bomber – whether in news items about Israel, Iraq,  Bali, or anywhere else. Yes, such individuals are prepared to die for their beliefs, and that’s suicide. But their death is not the primary goal; it’s an unfortunate (for them) side-consequence of their major objective, which is killing others. Better known as “homicide”. Calling them “suicide bombers”, then, is almost euphemistic, as it disguises the slaughter of others under the veneer of self-chosen suicide.

The second point in Clark Hoyt’s op-ed is how, over time, and through massive media exposure, single words or terms tend to accrue particular clusters of meanings. It’s a version of “mud sticks”. The name “Katrina” now cues much more than the hurricane; depending on context, it may include the failed levees, the neglect and the scandals about the rescue efforts, the tragedy in racial and social terms.  Think of what “Tampa” has come to connote in Australia.

This process is not unlike metonymy which is where a name or a word for one object or concept is used to stand for something else to which it is related, often something larger of which it is a part. In this way, “throne” can cue royalty, one’s “pocket” can cue economic status, “drink” can refer to any kind of alcohol. It’s a similar process when the “White House” or “Washington” is intended and taken to mean the current US administration; or “Number 10”, the British equivalent. In Australia, “The Lodge”  has lost some of this connectiveness, largely I suspect because of the aversion of some PMs to living in Canberra.

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